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Scared and lonely in the land of corona: »It's hard to do normal things – like getting up«

Student of English Anna Nørgaard Sørensen wants University of Copenhagen management to do something to relieve some of the strain on students: »I know that I am not the only one in this situation. Many of us need some help.« Prorector says more intiatives are underway.

From her dining table, which is also her place of work, she can see her bed. It’s drawing me towards it, she says, and my energy levels are at zero. She feels lonely. She can feel her anxiety – it’s heavy. Deafening inside her head.

When Anna Nørgaard Sørensen heard that the shutdown of Denmark was being extended, she was close to crying, she says. She is a student of English at the University of Copenhagen, now from her bedroom in the small apartment where she lives alone.

She knows that she’s not the only one who feels vulnerable, she says. Because she is also on the Student Council’s board and executive committee, and the council has heard from several students struggling with their mental health in isolation. They feel as if they have been left to themselves, says Anna Nørgaard Sørensen. She does, too.

READ ALSO: Holed up in Copenhagen for the Covid-19 shutdown, international students face new challenges

For one week now, Anna Nørgaard Sørensen has been taking photos of the times when she feels the anxiety. Anxiety that she has to keep in check when she deals with studies, countless calendar appointments, and the loneliness that has come from isolation.

She describes it like being stuck in a bell jar: »I’m cut off from the world that I can see happening around me, but I can’t relate to it because I’m locked up in my own brain. And then there’s this constant voice inside that just says: Arghhh.«

She has often felt like this during the last weeks.

»When I don’t see people, I feel this need. It’s like not getting enough sleep. It’s hard to do normal things – like getting up. Or cooking, or making sure you eat.«

And then there’s this new feeling: Loneliness. »I’m very extroverted, I get my energy from being with other people,« she says. She misses the hugs. And the daily chats at her study programme.

Here, Anna Nørgaard Sørensen talks about the pictures she has taken of her anxiety and loneliness:

»I can’t see my family right now because my dad has a disease that has weakened his immune system. So far, I’ve been isolated from the family because of him.

This is my cat, Buller. I got very lonely, and so I called my mom and got her to facetime my cat. My cat has a really good effect on me. When I lived at home, it would de-stress me to be close to her and to fondle her – I can’t do that right now, and so we had to be creative.

Normally I go home and visit my family once a week or every two weeks, so we see each other a lot. I really miss them a lot – seeing them, talking to them, eating with them. It’s unsettling to be cut apart from each other in this way.

I’ve made it a priority to see a tiny group of friends. I’ve seen four people outside the virtual space.

I’ve even given a couple of them a hug. I can’t help it, it is just too hard. And I can feel that it’s really nice afterwards. It helps a bit for a few days. Even though it is not optimal to break this prohibition. When you don’t have a family close by, you have to find another way.«

»I had online teaching the other day. It made me feel really lonely, because it all suddenly got real how alone I am.

Usually, when we meet in the classroom, we talk about what we’ve been doing over the weekend and stuff. Now it was ‘just’ the class stuff that had to be finalised. I may have been present with my fellow students and my teacher. But I wasn’t really.

It really showcased this lack of personal contact. In this class, we really get along well with each other, and this community has suddenly been taken away from us.«

»There are a lot of people talking about how this virtual space can be an alternative to the isolation, and let you be with others anyway. But when my student job had a virtual Friday Bar on a Wednesday, it really became clear how limited the ways we can be together really are.

Although I had some people with me on a screen, I wasn’t with them at all. Quite the contrary. It got superficial and I felt very alone as I sat behind my screen in my own apartment and had that beer.«

»I woke up the next day with the feeling that I was all alone in the world. It hit me the moment I opened my eyes and I couldn’t shake it off for the rest of the day. I tried to go out and take a walk, but I couldn’t even get out of the door. The feeling was stuck with me.

Being with people gives me a lot of energy, and that’s what drives me. When I can’t do it, I lose a lot of my energy. Then I don’t have the strength to do things.

It’s a dull feeling. Everything feels so heavy. And it’s easier just to give in, when I haven’t got anything as simple as a hug.«

»I broke the injunction not to use public transport, and went out to the Utterslev Mose nature preserve for a long walk with a friend.

Usually when I take the subway, there are a lot of people pushing and shoving to get some space. Suddenly I had the whole subway for myself. Both the loneliness and the gravity of the situation really hit me.

It is no joke that the subway, normally packed to the brim, is suddenly empty. Then it’s serious. It made me wonder whether I should go back home again. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t want to. What is most important? Public spirit or my own mental health? In this particular situation? I chose to prioritize my mental health.

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I’d like to live up to this social distancing requirement, but it’s hard.

A fellow student told me the other day that someone came over to give her a hug, and that she collapsed in tears because she missed having physical contact. I know what this means. The lack of physical contact is brutal.«

»This picture was taken from my dining table, which is also my desk at the moment. I can sit and look over at my bed. And when I took this picture, I wanted to just lie down over there. I couldn’t pull myself together, because I was completely drained of energy.

I live in a 41 square metre one-bedroom apartment. I’m in the same room all the time. A friend of mine has described it as being like a lion in a cage, and I agree. I feel like I’m pacing back and forth. I divide my home into different small zones – the sleeping zone, the work zone, the kitchen zone…

Working in the same room that you sleep is not good. That you can’t move away and change your environment. I can move to the other side of my desk, that’s the wildest thing that can happen. Normally I can go over to South Campus if I get enough of being at home. Then I can bump into a friend while I’m picking up coffee in the café. Now I don’t bump into anyone when I go to the kitchen to make coffee.«

»I crumbled. It just got to be too much, and I gave in to this feeling.

It felt like a defeat. I wish I could shake this feeling off and carry on as I usually do. But I can’t do it.

This is affecting my studies a lot. A lot. I need to read two texts a week on my study programme. This may not sound like a lot. But I haven’t been reading anything since the university shut down. This is starting to become a problem. If I don’t start reading soon, I’m not sure I will be able to catch up.

You’d think that now was the time to read. But when you spend so much energy getting up, because you’re completely drained… I’m also worried about all the stuff going on.

READ ALSO: With university closed, Julie is scared of her own decline

I am very worried. When the shutdown was extended, I wanted to cry. The prospect of being locked up for another three weeks, I couldn’t handle it. Just the thought of it.

The two things on top of each other … I may have the time, but I don’t have the energy. If I didn’t feel so lonely, maybe I could open that document.

I’ve approached a psychologist to see if getting some therapy might help. It’s expensive, and I’m lucky that I have some resources that I can draw on.

I would like to call on the management at the University of Copenhagen to take a look at how they can help us students. I know I’m not the only one in this situation. There are many of us who need help or who have questions.«

Prorector: More information will be forthcoming

»We have a whole lot of information on the way,,« says Bente Merete Stallknecht, prorector of the University of Copenhagen. She can understand that student feel stress, anxiety, and loneliness in their isolation, she says.

»And then you may well ask: Why haven’t any initiatives been taken before now?« She replies herself:

»We have focused first on getting the teaching up and running, and getting a grip on the exams that were to be held during the first week of the shutdown. The next thing we have been focused on is getting a legal basis from the Ministry so we had some reassurance in connection with what is about to happen for the rest of the spring semester’s teaching and exams. And the third focus has been the students’ well-being on their study programmes.«

Bente Merete Stallknecht says management has reached out to the university’s own think tank for stress and student well-being and asked for input.

»They’ve been given a short deadline, so I expect we’ll be able to offer some good pieces of advice later this week,« she says.

Specifically, she says, there will be a menu tab on student well-being during the corona crisis on KUnet. »I can almost promise that the tab will be there by the end of the week,« she says. Two messages to students will also be sent out this week – one on thesis deadlines and on summer exams, and one on student well-being during the digital era. And then there will be an FAQ for students with some good pieces of advice on well-being.

This FAQ will also contain advice from the Student Counselling Service, says Bente Merete Stallknecht:

»It includes a mindfulness app you can download, and they offer online student communities – we will link to that.«

Translated by Mike Young

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